Rohit's Realm

// / archive / 2008 / 07 / 19 / reflections-on-life-law-and-the-unix-command-line

July 19, 2008

Reflections on Life, Law, and the UNIX Command Line

With grades from the last quarter of my 1L year (finally) in, the dreadful journal competition (finally) complete, and the summer winding down faster than it began, I was already left poised this week for reflection (as though I need any help with that!). Surprisingly, however, it was a minor calamity involving my photo server (the noble that ended up providing the catalyzing spark necessary for me to contemplate the perennial question that has come to define not only me, but more importantly, this blog: what am I doing with my life (and why have I not yet killed myself)?

While neither discussions of soul-crushing existential angst nor those of obscure computer problems are uncommon on the venerable Realm, the two together rarely appear in a single article. The reason for this is rather simple: I love computers, I hate my life. As a natural consequence, these topics generally remain mutually exclusive.

These two disparate worlds collided last week when my server, which resides in Chicago, Ill., and, among other things, hosts my photo gallery, stopped responding and went offline. Being in New York, the prospects looked grim. No one in Chicago had my apartment keys, my roommate was in California, and I did not know his subletter. Worse still, even if I managed to obtain access for someone, I did not know what the problem was; if the server had gone down hard and needed a manual fsck, for instance, I did not know anyone in Chicago with the requisite skill set necessary to navigate the UNIX command line.

The technical details on how the situation arose and was resolved do not matter.1 The bottom line is that after much back-and-forth, I managed to get access to the apartment, and Double D came through in a pinch. The more interesting story is the response I got from my nerd friends in the dark days during which I was struggling to restore access to my server.

For those who do not speak nerd, the concept of a downed server probably falls on deaf ears. What's the big deal, right? But talk to any nerd, and she will be sure to tell you that a having a machine crash that one cannot physically access is one of the worst sources of panic and frustration that a person can ever face. It is the epitome of utter helplessness. If the problem is physical, there is simply nothing one can do short of spending $500 to fly out to Chicago for the night to fix it.2 It is akin to your computer crashing the night before a huge paper is due when there is no backup.

After four days, I finally posted a desperate message on Gtalk about my server being down. Within hours, I had messages from fellow geeks across the country, sympathizing and suggesting solutions. Chalky even offered to put me in touch with some of his co-workers in Chicago who could help me out under the usual terms common to the tech community.3

To an extent, this overwhelming response surprised me. It has been a while since I was last immersed in the tech world, and my career has long since diverged from the path followed by most techies to emerge from Berkeley EECS. Indeed, my summer job working in securities law speaks more to that divergence than words ever could. Nonetheless, though my immediate connection to that world I left behind may have diminished, the sense of community has not dissipated. And that makes a big difference to me.

As I have forged ahead in the past three years, first in consulting, and now in law, I have been immersed in social worlds very different than those I was a part of in college. I do not consider any one to be substantively better than the other, but certainly, they are radically different. This week was a reminder that though I may have left the fold, I have not yet severed the ties—and more importantly, that I do not want to sever those ties.

Without doubt, the tech community has problems, not the least of which are social awkwardness, misogynistic undertones, and a tendency towards tactlessness. (Never fear though: Angie is on it!) Nonetheless, as I have wandered far and wide, the positive attributes of the tech community continue to rein me in. The collaborative atmosphere and the propensity to render assistance at a moment's notice are only two such qualities. As I continue to answer those aforementioned perennial questions, perhaps the reminders of this week are ones I should keep in mind.

^ 1 For the nerds out there, there were two independent problems. The story is as follows. When the server initially stopped responding, I finally got in touch with the subletter and tried to get him to reboot it to see if that would clear the problem (maybe there had been a kernel panic). Instead, he turned it off (but said he rebooted it. In the mean time, I discovered that my DNS provider had changed the update URL that the script running out of my crontab used to update the IP every night (if it had changed) without any warning. Cute, I know. I finally got Double D access to my router, and he found the external IP, which had indeed changed. However, since the subletter had turned off the server, it took yet another trip and another day to resolve the issue. Most frustrating. I don't know what pissed me off more: the API change without warning, or the idiotic turning off of the computer.
^ 2 Don't think I didn't consider it. Another few days, and I would have been on a flight.
^ Transactions in the open source community are often valued in terms of beer. Thus, had they helped me out, I would have owed them a beer. This is a loaded and complicated topic that goes to the very essence of the open source software movement. For an introduction, see here.


I don't speak nerd. Neither should you.

Why don't you know anyone with the requisite UNIX skills after spending a year in Chicago? Who are you hanging out with there, anyway?

Katie, nerd is the new black.

Anon, I'm in law school, which is not really known for attracting people with UNIX skills.

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